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J. Lo’s ethnic sleight-of-hand

Special to The Times

Applying the adage “art imitates life” to Jennifer Lopez’s latest commodity, her new film, “Maid in Manhattan,” is wrong on two counts: J. Lo’s media-hyped rags-to-riches story is more myth than life, and “Maid in Manhattan” is more fodder than art.

Nonetheless, the film can’t help but reference reality. It serves up derriere jokes by the dozen as well as gratuitous shots of the No. 6 train (for which Lopez named her first album). It features J. Lo making waves at the ball by way of a scandalous, cleavage-friendly dress -- a dress not quite as scandalous as the J. Lo dress from the 2000 Grammys, but close enough.

And the movie, which was No. 1 at the box office last weekend, selling $18.7 million worth of tickets, revolves around a question easily applicable to the real-life Lopez: Who’s that girl? More precisely, to what race or ethnicity does that girl belong?

Plentiful shots of the Bronx’s Jerome Avenue and a smattering of Spanish last names drive home that Lopez’s character, Marisa, is Latina. But to Ralph Fiennes’ character, who takes her for a hotel guest instead of a maid, Marisa is “kind of Mediterranean looking”; to a jealous socialite at the hotel, Marisa is a blue-blood Hamptonite.

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The film climaxes when Fiennes learns the truth about Marisa’s class and ethnicity (which, in typical Hollywood fashion, are presented as one and the same).

And here, you insist, lies the line between fact and fiction. Could we possibly have any doubt as to Lopez’s real-life origin? She’s “Jenny from the block”! She can be found “on the 6"! Her albums feature Spanish tracks, and her videos showcase famous Latino ‘hoods (the South Bronx and Spanish Harlem). Doesn’t all this make J. Lo the poster gal for Puerto Rican America?

Well, sort of. Although J. Lo’s musical persona has her featuring “B” -- for “Bronx” and “Boricua” (Spanish slang for Puerto Rican) -- like a scarlet letter, her identity as a movie star has been far more indistinct. She’s been Mexican (“Selena”) and now Puerto Rican, but also Italian (“The Wedding Planner”), generically “ethnic” (“Out of Sight”) and plain old white (“The Cell”). Like other famous Latin actors -- Rita Hayworth, for instance -- Lopez has been a big-screen chameleon.

Such plays on race and ethnicity are a part of Hollywood history, from Al Jolson’s blackface routine in “The Jazz Singer” to Andy Garcia’s turn as an Italian mob boss in “The Godfather Part III.” But unlike earlier films, “Maid in Manhattan” seems intensely aware of its ethnic commentary. Lopez is told that a good maid remains invisible, a word echoed like a mantra throughout the film -- just as it is in Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man,” a novel about the way people of color are at once hyper-visible and hyper-invisible. The outfit Lopez wears upon meeting Fiennes, the one responsible for passing her off as a high-class guest, as a white guest, is itself white -- so starkly white that passersby comment on it, and Lopez fears sullying it.

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The film, then, is self-consciously about passing from Latin to WASP to Latin again -- a theme that runs through Lopez’s film career but also, I’d say, her real-life persona.

On the one hand, she’s marked by liberal use of tanning cream, an “urban” clothing line and a proclivity for what she’s described as “ghetto fabulous” fashions. On the other hand, Lopez pulls off European designers with the best of them, occasionally eases up on the self-tanner, and -- I can’t help but notice -- features a line of boyfriends that gets lighter and lighter (Sean “P. Diddy” Combs, Chris Judd, and now Ben Affleck).

None of this is to say, of course, that “Latin” and “WASP” can be defined in such superficial terms. But in the context of a public persona, superficialities are all we have to work with.

And the truth is, this public persona -- Lopez’s tendency to slip in and out of an ethnic role -- seems reflective of something larger. While Lopez flip-flops between Euro and Latin, other pop culture darlings -- Christina Aguilera and Raquel Welch, for instance -- learn Spanish for new roles or album tracks, visit their “homelands” and -- voila! -- are reborn as Latina.

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These performers prove that ethnicity is not such a stable entity. If “Latin-ness” can be taken on and off, sported for one film or video shoot and then discarded for another, then how absolute can it be?

James Baldwin once declared that whiteness is America’s greatest invention and its most profound lie. He meant that racial categories are not biological but social, that they shift from decade to decade, century to century. The Jews and the Irish, for instance, were once considered separate, nonwhite races but have since found their home in the “white (but sometimes ethnic)” category.

If we are now in the midst of another shift in such groupings, then perhaps Hollywood trends, and even “Maid in Manhattan,” reflect a significant cultural change. And wouldn’t this be a relief? It would transform our -- well, America’s -- J. Lo obsession from prurient gossip to bona-fide cultural studies.

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Baz Dreisinger is a post-doctoral fellow at UCLA’s Center for African-American Studies and is completing a book on racial passing in American culture.


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